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Social criticism in Dashiell Hammett’s "Red Harvest" and "The Maltese Falcon"

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2007 15 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur



1. Introduction

2. The Society in Hammett’s Novels
2.1 Criticism of Capitalism
2.2 Politics and the Law
2.3 Relations among the Individuals
2.3.1 Love
2.3.2 Family relations

3. Hammett’s Heroes
3.1 The World’s Influence on the Hero
3.2 New Individualism

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley.[1] – Raymond Chandler

1. Introduction

This quote from an essay entitled “The Simple Art of Murder”, which was published by Raymond Chandler in 1944, is a well-known description of Dashiell Hammett’s style of writing. Hammett (1894-1961) was one of the most influential writers of hard-boiled crime fiction. This particular sub-genre is seen as an American counterpart of the British crime fiction that rather concerned itself with upper-class murders in a somehow artificial world. The world of Dashiell Hammett is a completely different one. Here we have descriptions of a rough American urban setting, with characters talking like they would talk in reality. This is an important contribution to the development of the crime novel, and with his distinct style and setting, Hammett clearly shaped the face of hard-boiled fiction.

His novels were written during a time in which the USA had to struggle with new social developments and economical shifts and problems, all somehow reflected in Hammett’s fiction. It has been noted by critics that crime fiction can be used not only to depict social circumstances, but also to criticize them.[2] Especially the hard-boiled type is an effective instrument here,[3] as it also gives an interesting view at the hero and how he struggles with his surroundings.

This essay will explore how social criticism is performed in two novels of Dashiell Hammett. Red Harvest (1929) is often described as “the first hard-boiled novel”, giving it the status of a literary landmark. Here the author gives us a clear impression of his characteristic world and his social vision of it.[4] Therefore, the novel appears to be an interesting subject to look how this kind of literature employs social criticism.

The other book that will be examined here is The Maltese Falcon (1930), one of the most popular and best known hard-boiled crime novels ever,[5] that has served as a model for many authors.[6] As Robert Shulman argues, Hammet gives his “social vision its fullest expression” in this novel, showing “his concern with American individualism”.[7] Thus, as this examination is limited to two works, it seems most sensible to use The Maltese Falcon along with Red Harvest for this purpose to produce a good insight into the social criticism in Hammett’s books.

Before beginning with the study, it is necessary to make clear what ‘social criticism’ is here, as the term itself has a wide meaning. ‘Social’ will be discussed in the sense, as the Merriam-Webster dictionary puts it, “of or relating to human society, the interaction of the individual and the group, or the welfare of human beings as members of society”. This means that in a smaller sense, the term ‘social’ concerns the way the individuals, the characters of the novels, deal with each other, and, in a larger sense, how the society is organized and how its institutions treat the individual and the group, which also brings economic and political components into the scope of the study.

The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest are particularly well suited for such a study, as they both use distinct, in some points different, in some points similar ways to criticize. They also provide a look at different issues, therefore the essay will be able to cover a greater area combining the research results from the two novels.

First, the essay will focus on the wider relations in society, the political and economical and the legal. Then, the individual relations among the characters and the criticism of them will be observed. Later, this work will also explore how the society influences the individual – here the hero – in his actions.

2. The Society in Hammett’s Novels

One significant difference between the traditional English detective novel and the American novels of the hard-boiled type is the state of the world. In the English novel, there is a disruption of the order – usually a murder. The solution of the crime brings the world back to a normal state. In the hard-boiled novel, the world is in a constant state of disorder.[8] This chapter deals with the different types of disorder in society. In Hammett’s fiction, the focus is on the social problems on a structural level rather than concerning itself with current events.[9] His choice of setting is everything but coincidental, as the following observations will show. As Sinda Gregory notes, “Hammett’s use of Personville goes far beyond the usual hard-boiled strategy of using setting as a convenient source of violence and bizarre occurrences.”[10] The reader can see how the characters are influenced by their surroundings and how their ethical behavior is challenged. Hammett employs this as his social criticism.[11]

2.1 Criticism of Capitalism

In the beginning of the novel, the main protagonist and first-person narrator of Red Harvest, the nameless Continental Op, arrives in the Montana mining town named Personville. What he finds here is a community that is suffering from the most harmful consequences of capitalism. As we learn from a conversation of the Op with Bill Quint, Industrial Workers of the World leader in Personville, the town is ‘owned’ by the monopolist Elihu Willsson.

For forty years […] [he] had owned Personville, heart, soul, skin and guts. He was president and majority stockholder of the Personville Mining Corporation, ditto of the First National Bank, owner of the Morning Herald, and Evening Herald, the city’s only newspapers, and at least part owner of nearly every other enterprise of any importance. Along with these pieces of property he owned a United States senator, a couple of representatives, the governor, the mayor, and most of the state legislature. Elihu Willsson was Personville, and he was almost the whole state.[12]

The town being the personal property of one man is an idea that reflects what had happened to many American communities from the ending of the nineteenth century until the first decades of the twentieth century.[13] A power-hungry individual takes over a town and by gaining monopolistic control over everything, he manages to suppress those important ideological ideas of the USA of democracy and citizen involvement.[14] Personville is a powerful depiction of “the debased social and political climate existing in America during the 1920s”.[15] Although the novel is set and written before the Great Depression, the American economy was already in a bad state. Strikes were the order of the day, workers had to suffer hardship while big bosses like Willsson were rolling in money.


[1] Raymond Chandler. "The Simple Art of Murder", in: The Art of the Mystery Story. Ed. Howard Haycraft. New York: Carrol, 1985, p. 234.

[2] Cf. Lee Horsley. Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2005, p. 158f.

[3] Cf. Ibd., p. 161.

[4] Cf. Robert Shulman. “Dashiell Hammett’s Social Vision”, in: Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon: A Documentary Volume. Ed. Richard Layman. Detroit: Gale, 2003, p. 210.

[5] Cf. Ibd., p. 210.

[6] Cf. Ulrich Suerbaum. Krimi. Eine Analyse der Gattung. Stuttgart: Reclam 1984, p.132.

[7] Shulman 2003, p. 210.

[8] Cf. Suerbaum 1984, p. 137f.

[9] Cf. Ibd., p. 201.

[10] Sinda Gregory. Private Investigations: The Novels of Dashiell Hammett. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1985, p. 57.

[11] Cf. Ibd., p. 56-57.

[12] Dashiell Hammett. Red Harvest (1929). New York: Vintage Books, 1992, p. 8.

[13] Cf. Gregory 1985, p. 55.

[14] Cf. Ibd..

[15] Ibd.


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Institution / Hochschule
Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg – Anglistisches Seminar
Social Dashiell Hammett’s Harvest Maltese Falcon Twentieth Century Crime Fiction



Titel: Social criticism in Dashiell Hammett’s "Red Harvest" and "The Maltese Falcon"